How my digital west was won

Hello all,

I decided to mix things up a little today and talk about some of the tools that I use in my day-to-day studies that I have come to love. Hopefully I can show them off in the sharing, and perhaps somebody will see something that interests them. I have a LOT of ideas for my research percolating through my head, and I will be delighted to share them with you at a later date once they are ready. So without further ado, here they are:

I really can’t stress enough how useful this program is. Dropbox is, in short, a file manager that allows you to keep the information on multiple computers in sync. It also keeps a secure copy of all your files on the internet for you to recover whenever you need to. It is cloud computing at its very best. If you’re interested, go to this link to join. I have saved myself from half a dozen mishaps since I started using this tool. Let me tell you about some of my favourite features:

  1. It allows you to restore a file to any point up to 30 days in the past. This saved my posterior once after the document of my thesis proposal corrupted itself. I restored the document to a copy I had saved 20 minutes previously, and saved the day.
  2. It has an iPhone app. This allows me to retrieve and bookmark any folder on my dropbox (abstracts, drafts, random PDFs etc) so that I can show them to people. You can also email a link to anyone via the app that allows them to download the file. Wizard!
  3. You can create shared folders between accounts into which any number of individuals can dump files. Imagine the possibilities for collaborative projects!
  4. Once you set it up, it basically works transparently without you doing anything. It is zero maintenance. I can’t tell you how much I love things that just work.

Zotero is a wonderful firefox extension that acts as a replacement for EndNote, which I despise with a white-hot passion. You can pull citations off library websites, journal pages, newspaper articles etc from the url bar on your browser. You can import citation styles from EndNote and it generates a bibliography really easily. I cranked out the 12 pages of citations for my PhD proposal in about two minutes. To my mind, its strengths are its flexibility and integration into the browser (so that one can find and record citations all in one go). This program will be so much better if more people use it, because then you can create shared bibliographies.

I use it on a daily basis to copy citations into my clipboard, which I then attach to the end of every note I make with the page number included. I also use its OpenOffice.org extension to bump citations into my work as I go, which works swimmingly. You can also link the citations to a PDF of the document if you so choose.

I absolutely adore this program. Put simply, it syncs, stores and allows you to search for notes anywhere (iPhone, PC, Mac), with anything in them (images, PDF etc) and find them easily (tags and a really powerful text recognition tool). I use it to manage my citations for my thesis, and it is amazingly good at it. Read this and then imagine what you can do with this program. It also connects to tonnes of other productivity programs that you can use to make it better. I have found the following uses:

  1. Dump articles into it to read whenever I want. I can also scan books and do the same with them (and search for text within the book, booyah!).
  2. Take screenshots of Google Books/PDFs/anything and use them as notes (with citation). You can search for text within a picture, and it finds the text within a high quality screenshot every time. This saves a phenomenal amount of effort.
  3. Dump pictures into it from library archives etc to look at later, complete with all their data.
  4. Keep correspondence (you can send emails to it) photocopies of receipts.
  5. Email notes to people on the iPhone using the app.

These three programs all feed off each other, and between them, I have an amazing capacity to gather, categorize, find and manage a tremendous amount of information. It reduces the likelihood of bad citations, losing information and going insane with bibliographies, all things that I hate. This leaves me with more time to do the things I love: Writing about the Middle Ages, thinking about the Middle Ages and reading about the Middle Ages.

Best Wishes to all of you!

James

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